I’m not sure how to talk about A Guy Named Joe without some spoilers. But I’m going to try. Like a test.
A Guy Named Joe is a propaganda picture, but one less about jingoism and more about the American trademarked Freedom. Only it’s a specific kind of Freedom, it’s the kind of Freedom you can only understand if you’re an Army flier. Now, it’s possible—the film attests—the guys in the other branches of the service are just as thrilled about dying in the ways specific to their branches, but Guy Named Joe is about the glory of dying a combat flier. And how dying as a combat flier isn’t just good for the dead flier, who’ll get some real perspective on life, but for the future as well. The little children need dead fliers so the future might live. In Freedom.
It’s a lot.
But also not really, because Dalton Trumbo’s script doesn’t get too far into the weeds with it. Oh, a few people get big monologues about the film’s themes—Lionel Barrymore gets the Freedom one, so even if you’re cocking your head and trying to unravel the philosophy of it, Barrymore’s great delivering it. Because Joe is very well-cast. Spencer Tracy’s perfect in the lead, a daredevil bomber pilot who eventually gets in too much trouble and ends up taking a backseat to the future generation, personified in Van Johnson. Tracy gets some decent scenes with Johnson; best considering the circumstances, but some really good ones with leading lady Irene Dunne. Dunne’s Tracy’s girl—and some kind of military cargo flier (the ladies can fly cargo through war zones solo but they can’t be combat pilots because they’re girls); she, Tracy, and Ward Bond all hang out together. Turns out some of it is because Bond can’t handle misanthropic narcissist Tracy without Dunne to temper him. It’s a great character relationship, something the film doesn’t do enough with, even though it arguably leverages Bond more than anything else in the picture.
The film’s got three sections. The first is in England, where Tracy and Bond are stationed. It runs forty-five minutes; now, Joe is two hours. The first thirty-eight percent of the movie is the England stuff with Tracy, Dunne, Bond, and James Gleason as the guys’ stuck-up CO. You would think, given epical story arcs and Freytag triangles, there’d be a lot of important plot establishing somewhere in that thirty-eight percent. So it’d be important later.
You’d be wrong.
Because in the second part of the film, where Tracy gets stuck back stateside playing guardian angel to rookie ace Johnson, well… nothing from that first part is important. Out of sight, out of mind. It’s just the story of Johnson getting to be a better flier and a more confident guy. He’s just inherited four million bucks, but he’s a solid guy. He’s not even a skirt chaser until Tracy’s influence and even when he’s a skirt chaser, you feel like he’s still a pretty good guy. Johnson’s got the second hardest part in the film. He’s got no one to talk with about his feelings and feelings get talked about a lot in Joe. Similarly, Dunne doesn’t have anyone to talk with about her feelings when it’s important in part three, which is set in New Guinea and the war.
Heavily leveraged Bond is the way the film brings parts one and two together, with Johnson getting assigned to Bond (and Gleason) and Dunne dropping by for a visit. Johnson falls for Dunne immediately; though we don’t get to see him fall for her, because the movie’s busy concentrating on Dunne and Bond and 800-pound gorilla Tracy. Fleming skips the shot of Johnson seeing Dunne, skips his agency in approaching her. Johnson never gets that agency back. Something else lost in part three.
Dunne eventually gets some agency, but kind of too late to matter.
See, she and Johnson get together—rather chastely for a while, which almost seems like the film not wanting to give forty-something Dunne too much chemistry with late twenties Johnson (he can get away with early twenties, her with late); the chaste thing feels forced though. Because for a while the film builds the chemistry between the two—as Dunne is reminded more and more of Tracy, because (unbeknownst to her) Tracy’s been Johnson’s most influential mentor. And then it stops. Eventually there’s a little more of a spark, but it’s in the last fifteen or twenty minutes and it’s a little late.
The film does have a last minute (temporary) rally as Tracy gets a “well, this was worth it” monologue but then the it stays too close with him after just saying the whole point of the damn movie is he’s the 800-pound gorilla. Trumbo pretends he’s been working out the moral of the whole thing for the last two hours and thinks Tracy’s monologue is going to be able to sell it. Tracy’s able to perform the monologue beautifully, he’s just not able to magic it into a good ending or a successful arc for literally anyone in the entire movie.
The performances are key. Tracy and Dunne don’t get great parts, but they get some good scenes. Bond does really well having to carry the energy of the film, even though he’s an glorified sidekick. And the movie is mercenary in how it uses him. Johnson’s potentially got the best part and gets less than anyone else but he’s able to turn it into something. He’s earnest in just the right way, a nice contrast to Tracy and something the film never plays up enough, which is silly. Gleason’s okay. He’s better at the end. At the beginning he’s just a plot foil and exposition dumper.
Technically… well, at least Fleming is consistent in failings. Joe’s got some great special effects with the flying and some really bad composite shots with the background projection. George J. Folsey and Karl Freund do a real bad job matching lighting and it’s distracting at times. It’s worse in the second part, stateside, when the rear screen projection might work as a visual representation of narrative detail.
But of course Fleming’s not going to think of it.
Otherwise, the direction’s fine. Just not good enough to lift the picture out its problems. Good editing from Frank Sullivan. Great sets; not the sets fault no one lights them or shoots them right.
A Guy Named Joe doesn’t try as hard as it should and it shows, getting good (and better) performances out of its cast without really tasking them. Tracy, Dunne, Johnson, Bond, and Barrymore all could have done much more.
And, last thing—nice support from Barry Nelson as Tracy’s stateside sidekick.